This wasn’t how the script was written. San Jose was supposed to steamroll Colorado in the first round of the playoffs, but late in Game 4 the Sharks were growing desperate. They were the experienced team, loaded with talent – and a former Hart Trophy winner. Losing to the Avalanche was not expected.
Somebody forgot to tell Colorado it was fodder. They were the young, untested playoff party crashers with 14 players experiencing the postseason for the first time – and that doesn’t include rookie head coach Joe Sacco. But the Avalanche players and coaches were undaunted, and it showed against San Jose.
“We were a team that wasn’t supposed to be in the playoffs,” 19-year-old Matt Duchene
says. “We didn’t feel any pressure. You just want to play well.”
The Avalanche did play well despite losing to the No. 1 seed in six games. A few bounces here or there and they might have pulled off a sweep; the series was that close. Even in defeat the organization can be proud of what it accomplished. From last in the Western Conference to a playoff team in a season, and it was done with a group of unknown players who, in the end, made names for themselves.
“To see a young group do what they did and not quit, it’s something special,” says captain Adam Foote, one of the few players with playoff experience on the team. “It’s going to be fun to watch them for years.”
It was fun watching the young players in their first playoff experience, in large part because they never backed down from the top-seeded Sharks. Of Colorado’s 11 goals in the series, seven were scored by playoff rookies, including both game winners.
Moreover, arguably the best player in the series was 28-year-old goalie Craig Anderson, who gave San Jose fits in his first postseason series.
“He was outstanding,” Sacco says. “He’s been outstanding all season long. He was the backbone of our team.”
Anderson came to Colorado as an unheralded free agent last summer. He quickly established himself as the No. 1 goalie, and he reinforced that with an outstanding playoff series. In Games 2, 3 and 4 he faced 148 shots and stopped 141, including 51 in a 1-0 overtime win in Game 3.
Not bad for someone who had never played an NHL playoff game before April 14.
“All you can ask from your goaltender is to give us a chance to win and he did that almost every game,” Sacco says.
While Anderson was keeping the Sharks off the board, his teammates were going to work in front of him. Chris Stewart scored three goals in the series, including the deciding one in Game 1 in San Jose. Ryan O’Reilly had the Game 3 winner, Brandon Yip scored two goals and Kyle Cumiskey also had a goal, with all three players taking part in their first playoff series.
Yip led all rookies with four points in the series, second on the team to 24-year-old Paul Stastny
, who had five points.
All of them knew the NHL postseason was going to be different, but it took stepping on the ice to realize how different it is.
“Mentally, getting ready for playoffs you’re in a different mindset,” says O’Reilly, who, like Duchene, is 19. “You’ve got to do whatever it takes to win – block a shot with your face. You’re in that mentality. It’s a pretty different thing.”
The young players did have an edge heading into the playoffs because Colorado was fighting for a postseason berth for the last few weeks of the season. It wasn’t until Duchene scored the deciding shootout goal against Vancouver on April 6 did the Avalanche clinch a spot.
That pressure helped prepare these players for the NHL’s second season.
“Every point becomes more important late in the season,” Stewart says. “The more games you play in the playoffs the more ready you are for them.”
The Avalanche proved they were playoff ready from the drop of the puck in Game 1, and they showed a maturity that belied their years. In Game 5 in San Jose, Duchene didn’t take the bait when Sharks forward Jamie McGinn
tried to draw him into a fight. Instead Duchene controlled his emotions to try to draw a penalty and put his team on the power play.
It was wisdom usually reserved for a veteran, but Duchene understood the team was more important than his personal gain.
“Our young guys learned how powerful the mind can be,” Foote says. “There was a lot learned in this locker room and there are a lot more positives coming out of this season and this series.”
Game 6 gave a glimpse of those positives. The young Avalanche, down 3-2 in the series, could have folded when the Sharks scored in the first minute of the game. Instead they weathered the storm, got a tying goal from Marek Svatos and took the lead in the third period when Yip scored his second goal of the playoffs.
The lead didn’t stand, but Colorado proved it wasn’t a team just happy to be in the playoffs with the way it responded to adversity.
“Every young guy on this team handled it well,” says Duchene, the NHL rookie scoring champ in the regular season. “If we didn’t, the series would have been over sooner. We have a group of winners and guys who’ve won at different levels. If you have a group of winners you’re going to go far.”
That’s what the Avalanche is counting on. For a team that finished last in the conference only a year ago, a team that used 10 rookies and has 12 players under the age of 26, 2009-10 was a success. Add to that 14 players getting a taste of the playoffs for the first time, the future looks bright for this squad.
“We’re certainly headed in the right direction,” Sacco says. “There is a lot to look forward to. We have to make sure we work and do the right things to get ready for the future. We’re going to be young, we’re going to be full of energy. I see a lot of upside.”
So do the players. If anything, the loss to the Sharks has given them motivation to get better. When training camp starts in September the young players will know what to expect from the start of the season through 82 games, and just as important they’ll understand playoff hockey that much more.
“We know what it takes now,” Duchene says. “We came in and did pretty well. We played with a ton of heart and our veteran leadership was amazing. It’s something we can push on forward with.”